Dastan-e-Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

The literary life of a translator

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi with his dog Sunehri at their home in Delhi. shahid tantray for the caravan
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi with his dog Sunehri at their home in Delhi. shahid tantray for the caravan
01 April, 2019

IN 1966, when the writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi was thinking of names for his new Urdu literary magazine, Teesha—axe, or adze—was the one that stood out first. A teesha is associated with Farhad, the stonemason in the Persian romance Khusraw and Shirin, who had to cut through a mountain and release a river of milk to prove his love for the princess Shirin.

Faruqi wanted to attempt something ambitious with his magazine too—he hoped to free Urdu literature from the domination of imperial narratives. At that time, the Urdu literati had begun to recognise a sense of lethargy and the possibility of an imminent decline in Urdu literature. Indian intellectuals and writers had created the Progressive Writers’ Association, in 1935, in response to fascist and imperialist regimes. Conceived, in London, by writers such as Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and Jyotirmaya Ghosh, the PWA’s leading lights included Ahmed Ali, Prem Chand, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and others. These figures articulated the belief that Indian literature ought to deal with societal issues, such as hunger, poverty and political subjugation. Other ways of seeing were not considered literature and not encouraged, and the PWA steadily lost momentum.

Faruqi finally decided on another name, Shabkhoon—a surprise attack by night. It alluded to the act of shaking the world of literature out of stasis. Until he retired, he worked on the magazine at nights, after his day job as a civil servant. The magazine ran successfully for 40 years. It would be an understatement to say that Faruqi cultivated other interests over this period too: he studied the development and history of the Urdu language and its subtleties, explored the conventions of Urdu poetry and revived the lost tradition of the dastan—oral storytelling. He also established himself as a writer and translator of fiction, drama and poetry; compiled a dictionary; and wrote literary criticism, in which he often expressed unpopular views.

Faruqi was born on 30 September 1935, in Pratapgarh, in what would later become Uttar Pradesh. His paternal grandfather was a headmaster, at Normal School Gorakhpur where Premchand had also studied. His paternal family, Faruqi recalled to me when I visited him in Allahabad, in early January, was religious, “did not shoot very high” and mostly worked clerical jobs. His grandfather was close friends with prominent sufis and theologians of the time. The maternal side, more scholarly, traced its lineage to Nasiruddin Mahmud Chiragh Dehlavi, a disciple of the renowned sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. One of Faruqi’s great grandfather’s cousin was the ustad of Mohammad Badshah, who compiled a seven-volume dictionary of Persian called Fahrang-e-Anand Raj—the dictionary of Anand Raj—and named after the maharaja of Vijaynagram, Anand Gajapati Raj, where he was serving as the chief secretary.